words & illustration :: Kieran Brownie
Throughout human history we have relied on speed for communication over long distances. Messengers had to be fast on their feet, not only to expedite the messages they carried, but to survive (travelling by foot left them exposed to the elements and at the mercy of the weather).
In 1835, the “electric telegraph” forever changed our understanding of the environment. Weather could be tracked across continents, data could be collected, and models built—and so the door opened for the weather imaging we use today. But we wanted more, a growing lust for bigger and better data necessitated bigger and better networks. Radio waves were the next leap in communication, and the earliest, most rudimentary iterations of this tech allowed the first satellite to be launched into space in 1959. The space race accelerated innovations in wireless technology and by 1982, the first generation mobile network was introduced with a top speed of 2.4 kilobytes per second (kbps).
The challenge at hand is that frequencies allowing for high data-rate transmissions seem to neighbour channels used for weather observation, such as the resonant frequency of water molecules.article continues below
Less than 40 years later, we are on the verge of the much-hyped 5G (fifth generation) network that could support speeds up to 35gbps (gigabytes per second, over a million times faster than those 1982 satellites and 35 times faster than our current 4G LTE network). Amidst all this progress, meteorologists are saying we need to slow down.
The greatest contributor to our weather models is the Advanced Microwave Sounding Unit (AMSU) that accounts for an 18 per cent reduction in forecast error. The AMSU measures atmospheric gasses and temperatures by “listening” to a spectrum of electromagnetic radiation between 300 megahertz (MHz) and 300 gigahertz (GHz) known as microwaves. Waves above 300GHz fall into the infrared spectrum and at 300 terahertz (THz) these frequencies become visible light.
If this all sounds confusing it’s because it is, but the politics behind the use of these frequencies are even more complex. In 1865, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) was created to coordinate the use of radio waves by allocating parts of the spectrum for specific uses, sometimes auctioning off frequencies to the highest bidder—as demand grows, so too does competition
. The challenge at hand is that frequencies allowing for high data-rate transmissions seem to neighbour channels used for weather observation, such as the resonant frequency of water molecules. Studies are showing a troubling arc of interference spreading across our continent that correlates with increased numbers of broadcast television transmitters. In North America, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has proposed an allowable “noise” (interference) level that is 2,000 times higher than the limit set by the European Union and 3,000 times the recommendation of the World Meteorological Organization.
“It is a global problem” Jordan Gerth, a meteorologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison told Scientific American. “There is very little research on exactly how bad weather forecasts could get as interference increases.” He adds that the more “noise” on our airwaves, the more weather information we could lose, and that could impact everything from predicting where Atlantic hurricanes will hit land, to when big snowstorms will come. So even though 5G’s weak range will limit its use to urban centres and won’t let you insta-tweet your face in 4k resolution from the backcountry, it might still leave you out in the cold—a casualty of progress. —ML